Farewell to Rachel

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My mother-in-law died last week. It wasn’t a tragedy. She was 93 years old and died peacefully in her sleep, without apparent pain. But it got me thinking about death and other scary things.

Rachel was living in a board and care facility 60 miles away when she died. For various reasons, including my own disability, she couldn’t stay with us. We couldn’t afford four-star care, but the staff was very caring and skillful. She actually got to do more socializing and seemed less lonely than she had before she got there.

She made two friends and the three of them had all their meals together and hung out in their wheelchairs in the common space. She saw her daughter about once a week and her grandson and her great-granddaughter Anaya once a month. I realize that’s not much, but the home was far away and that’s the best we could do.

They had activities like jazz musicians who came and performed in the common space, which she loved. She spent most of her time reading books and newspapers and watching TV news shows and Judge Judy. She wrote little letters, notes, and cards to her friends and family to keep in touch.

Rachel had been one of the first woman airplane pilots and taught flying for several years. She edited texts for continuing education for lawyers. Before that she edited newspapers for unions, including one paper for Czech workers in factories in Chicago.

She was a political activist who fought for civil rights, women’s rights, and workers’ rights. She was part of the African-American art community in Chicago and knew several artists who later became famous, such as Elizabeth Catlett. She was a huge fan of libraries and worked with the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library to improve libraries in the area.

I learned things about self-management from Rachel. I am pretty disorganized, and it interferes with self-care, because I forget things. She was the most organized person I knew. Even as she lost a lot of her memory, she still managed to get her needs met, because she wrote everything down in neat notebooks. When you went to see her, she would review her notebook to remember things she wanted to ask you and things she needed. Her record-keeping and self-reminders are useful skills I am trying to follow.

I also learned about coping with disability from her. In her 50’s, she had to quit work because of Meniere disease, a constant dizziness that lasted about twenty years. It never completely went away. She really missed her work at the law book company and sometimes felt lonely or bored when the dizziness trapped her at home.

But she refocused her life around reading and crafts and keeping in touch with people through letters. She stayed involved by writing letters to the editors of local and national newspapers.

So am I sad about losing her, or scared about her fate? It was sad to see her abilities and energy fade away, especially after she broke her hip four years ago. It was a long journey in the shadow side of life, the winter season from which there is no spring. It is scary to think of being where she was, and sad to acknowledge how far down that path I’ve already gone because of physical disability.

However, it’s also encouraging and inspiring to know that even great loss can be coped with. Moments of joy and meaning can still be found even after much of your life has been stripped away. She seemed to grow spiritually after her injury. I notice something like that happening to me, too. So there are rewards.

Stories like Rachel’s help me not fear death. She is still present in the lives of family, friends, and other people, even though she will never be physically present. Already, the annoying or sad parts of her seem to be disappearing from memory, allowing everyone to love her more.

I’m really grateful that the staff insisted we get a durable power of attorney for health care and a do not resuscitate order in her file the first week she got there. Those papers enabled her death to be peaceful, instead of a flailing ambulance ride to an emergency room.

Now she is permanently at peace. If death is like a long, peaceful sleep, that’s not bad. If death is a different state of consciousness, an awareness without attached sensation, or if there is rebirth or heaven at the end of it, that’s even better maybe. Either way, it doesn’t seem scary. I wish her well in her new state.

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